Ancestry is a tricky thing. Via the Genome Project I’ve traced mine back thousands of years to Mongolia and Africa. But when asked to identify my ancestry I tend to speak of those elements that I recognize as core to who I am today: having both sets of parents come to America from small towns in the Ruhr region of Germany.
While I grew up in New York and was born in America and have lived in California these past ten years, German is my first language and primary culture. And when I look in the mirror I don’t necessarily see traces of Africa or Mongolia. And I’ve never been pegged as connected to either of those ancestries. So when asked about my ancestry I say: German!
Unitarian Universalism, born as I was in 1961, also can be traced back thousands of years to the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Hebrews. How? In part through the traits we share, which includes an emphasis on reason, democratic process, justice, and the idea of a unified divinity.
Each of those traditions fed into what came to be known as Catholicism, which gave rise to many alternate understandings of Christianity via the Protestant Reformation. That revolution of thought led an awful lot of rebellious free-thinkers to undertake the hazardous journey to this continent upon which we find ourselves today. As Unitarian Universalism’s religious ancestors they brought with them the emphasis upon a loving God and the right of conscience.
So, this land was taken over from its inhabitants and restructured as a deistic, “God-fearing” Christian nation, tolerating religious diversity (specifically, in terms of how devotion to God is expressed).
Up until the 20th century Unitarians and Universalists were generally Christian deists, inspired by Jesus (worshiped as the son of God). Their churches had spires and crosses, organs, baptismal fonts and stained glass images of biblical figures.
Over time, new discoveries were made about other philosophies and religions, inspiring appreciation for different ways of thinking about reality and the many diverse manifestations of God. The increasingly horrific experiences of war in the 19th and 20th centuries gave rise to even more questions about and critiques of traditional teachings about Christianity. So agnosticism and humanism found their way onto the religious stage, which had been dominated by Christian deism.
Each of these movements can be claimed by Unitarian Universalists as ancestors.
But they can also be claimed as viable spiritual paths for those drawn to Unitarian Universalism today, who keep reason, democratic process, justice and love alive.